|Hercules and Achelous
Cornelius van Haarlem
source Wikimedia Commons
Achelous relates how he lost his horn in a fight with Hercules when they both contended for the hand of Deianira. First he had attempted to persuade the girl’s father by disparaging Hercules, but Hercules discounted words, instead wanting to fight. Finally overpowered, Achelous first attempted to transform himself into a snake and then a bull, but his enemy tore off his horn, which the Naiads took and filled with fruit and flowers, now called a sacred Cornucopia. Sophocles’ play, The Women on Trachis, recalls this battle between Achelous and Hercules.
|Nessus kidnaps Deianeira (c. 1600)
source Wikimedia Commons
Juno hated Hercules for his mighty deeds and while he was away, she had Rumor go to his loving wife, whispering lies of his love of Iole. Deianira, being a sister of Meleager (I thought they were all turned into guinea hens – see Book VIII), devises a plan of revenge: to cut the throat of her rival, but meanwhile, she will send Hercules the tunic of Nessus to rekindle his love. As he wears it, the venom courses through Hercules’ body, bringing searing pain, but when he tries to take it off, he tears his flesh with it. Before he perishes in agony, he hurls his attendant, Lichas, into the sea, blaming him for bringing the gift and the man becomes a stone in the Euboean Sea. The gods are dismayed at what will happen to the earth’s defender and Jove decides to deify him, riding down in his chariot to cloak him in a cloud and then place him in the sky.
|Birth of Heracles
Jean Jacques François de Barbier
Because of his father’s wishes, Hyllus, the son of Hercules, wed Iole who is now pregnant. Hercules’ mother, Alcmena gives the girl advice and tells her of her own birth pangs. Cruel Juno, angry at Jove’s impregnating Alcmena, sits outside, crosses her legs and her fingers to block the birth. But Galanthis, the servant girl, cleverly recognizes the goddess and announces that Alcmena has given birth. Juno is astounded, leap up and with the unlinking of her knees and fingers, the knot was undone and Alcmena finally gave birth. Yet Galanthis makes the mistake of jeering at Juno who turns her into a weasel.
Iole tells of her half-sister, Dryope, who was raped by Delphi’s deity (Phoebus), nevertheless Andraemon happily married her. One day, as she was walking with her infant son and Iole, she picked the purple blossoms of a lotus, which dripped blood with her plucking. The lotus was a nymph who had transformed herself after being chased by Priapus, but from Dryope’s innocent carnage, the lotus begins to transform her as well. Sister, husband and father, all rush to the scene just in time to hear Dryope’s final plea for her son to visit and know her, then she gives the boy a final kiss before her lips are sealed forever.
Iolaus appears in the doorway, this nephew of Hercules having his youth restored by his uncle’s request to Hebe, the wife he married when he was placed in the sky. Hebe wishes never to perform the task again, but her vow is stopped by Themis, the prophetess, telling of many times this similar event would take place in different ways. Even the gods wish for such favours for their favourites but through examples of Minos, Rhadamanthus and Aeacus, Jove demonstrates all are not so blessed and the deities settle down.
Old Minos is concerned about an overthrow by young Miletus, but Miletus sails away and starts his own city at the mouth of the Meander. He finds a Cyanee, is lured by her body and she gives birth to twins, Byblis and Caunus. Byblis develops an unsisterly love for Caunus, pining for him with a startling intensity. Finally, she sends him a letter confessing her love, which he receives with a burgeoning rage. He escapes, leaving the land and her obscene love, but she follows him in a frenzy of passionate despair, travelling all over until completely insane, she collapses, her tears transforming her into a fountain.
|Byblis turning into a spring (1866)
source Wikimedia Commons
In Phaestus, Crete, there lived a freeborn man called Ligdus with a pregnant wife, Telethusa. He wishes only two things for his “dear” wife (please, sense the beginning of sarcasm here): that she suffers little pain in childbirth and that the child may be a boy, because if it turns out to be a girl, he will put her to death. Both distraught over his decision, as Telethusa is about to give birth she sees the (Egyptian) gods, Anubis, Bubastis, Apis, Osiris’ son, Isis, Osiris, and the Egyptian snake who tell her to let the child live. So Telethusa is able to fool everyone into thinking that the child is a boy, and thirteen years later the boy, Iphis (really a girl), is betrothed to the lovely Ianthe. Now Iphis actually longs for Ianthe, but is distraught over her sex, thinking that nothing can come of the union. The girl prays to Isis, and behold! On the day of the marriage Iphis is transformed into a young man and gets his/her desire.
I must say that in spite of the distastefulness of some of these tales, Ovid has outdone himself. His metamorphoses are not just simply humans changing to bulls, birds and whatnot, but a broader transformation of gender, alliances, and even unnatural love.
|The Metamorphosis of the Lovers (1938)